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  • Niall Kishtainy

Discover what time boxing can do for your writing routine

The nineteenth-century British novelist Anthony Trollope would put his watch in front of him on the table and write 250 words every 15 minutes. After three hours he would have ten pages of a novel or article. He estimated that working like this he could produce the equivalent of three triple-volume novels in less than a year.

Trollope would write for three hours before breakfast, then get on with the rest of his life: he was an official at the Post Office, hunted several times a week and frequently attended his club. 'Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write,’ he said. The point was to employ that time in as focused a way as possible. Trollope believed he owed his productivity most of all to the punctuality of the servant to whom he gave an extra £5 a year to bring him coffee at 5.30 every morning.

A century or so later, the American novelist Ray Bradbury was looking for somewhere quiet to work where he wouldn’t be disturbed by his two young children. In the basement of a University of California library he found a bank of typewriters that could be rented for ten cents for 30 minutes. He came back to the library with his pockets full of ten-cent pieces, sat in front of one of the machines, and typed for 30 minutes. When his time was up he’d stand up, walk around the book stacks, then return for another writing burst. After nine days, he’d spent $9.80 and written a novella, which would later be expanded into his most famous work, Fahrenheit 451.

We don't need to channel Trollope or Bradbury to benefit from a similar technique. The Pomodoro Method is one of the best-known time-boxing techniques around today. The idea is to set a timer for 25 minutes, then get to work. When the timer goes off you take a timed five-minute break, after which you do another 25-minute session. After four sessions you take a 20-minute break before starting again. Developed in the 1980s by the Italian time-management expert Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Method was named after the tomato-shaped plastic kitchen timer with which he’d time his work sessions.

Cirillo invented the technique when he was a university student feeling overwhelmed by his assignments. The method also saved me when I came across it as a slightly panicky final-year PhD student with a looming thesis deadline: my first big writing project. My previous routine had been similar to that of many PhD students: I arrived at the desk, contemplated the hours of work time stretching out in front of me and the mammoth task that needed to be accomplished, felt paralysed, then engaged in internet-based procrastination while feeling guilty for not getting words down on the page.

With the Pomodoro Method, your attention is concentrated into the next 25 minutes. When you sit down at your desk, that's all you have to do. It's a micro deadline less daunting than the whole afternoon stretching out in front of you, and when it ends you know you can swipe around on the internet for a bit (although some stretching or a short walk up and down tend to be more restorative). Short periods of intense focus produce better work than more scattered attention applied over a longer period of time. It’s nigh-on impossible to do intellectual or creative work for eight hours flat, and the Pomodoro Method makes you build in breaks between periods of concentration, just as an athlete doing high-intensity training rests her muscles between bursts of activity.

Big writing projects require stamina, and time boxing is a great way to maintain focus during the marathon that is book writing, especially on days when you feel sludgy and lacking in motivation. The novelist Susanna Clarke has talked about how she suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and used the Pomodoro Method to help conserve her energy when she was working on her most recent novel, Piranesi.

As Trollope found, combining time boxing with a word count target – writing a certain amount of words during every session – can be a powerful way of quickly producing a large amount of text. But writing is rarely as linear and predictable as Trollope’s regimented routine might have us believe. Non-fiction writers in particular often don’t write every day, and may have to do further research before they can increase their word count. Of course, you can use the Pomodoro Method for reading and research; these tasks require as much focus as the writing itself. You can also use it to squeeze productive work into small time slots that fit around your other obligations.

I used to use an old-fashioned kitchen timer to time my work sessions, but now I have a great little app on my phone called Bear Timer. Turn the phone over and it plays the sound of rain for 25 minutes before making a friendly chirrup to tell you it’s break time. The physical act of turning over the phone and hearing the rain quickly puts me in the zone.

I’ve found that working like this helps to define a day’s work more sharply. One of the problems with being a home-based writer is that the end of the work day can become fuzzy and deflating. It isn’t always clear when to mentally log off and allow yourself the feeling of satisfaction with the day’s accomplishments. But knowing that I have achieved a target number of pomodoros can help bring a sense of having done enough until the next day.

Let us know if you give it a try, and whether it works for you!

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